“To D. Scarlatti (1685–1757) with apologies”—so composer Erik Lotichius (1929–2015) dedicated his Anaitalrax: Twenty-five virtuoso piano studies. Yes, the work’s title—Anaitalrax—is Scarlattiana sounded backwards, but this sly wink is indicative of a deeper, more layered operation at the core of Lotichius’s work. Many of the etudes are personally dedicated to friends and loved ones. All bear the mark of Lotichius’s desire to escape the verfremdungseffekt of the European modernism that surrounded him for so much of his musical life. Instead, Lotichius heard the expressive immediacy of jazz and blues as equal to that of past musical masters. And here the title’s enigma reveals itself: perhaps for Lotichius liberation from an aesthetically desolate present came by way of retracing the past. In a new recording on Solaire Records, the first of the complete Anaitalrax cycle, pianist Ralph van Raat captures Lotichius’s layered meaning with playing as technically brilliant as it is heartfelt and personal.
On first hearing, the twenty-five studies may seem outmoded, as if they were composed of simple musical borrowings from the classical and popular past. But, each etude confidently transcends pastiche with a percipient nod and a musical twist. Anaitalrax 3 (dedicated to Roelof B.) is possessed of a nonchalance reincarnated from Debussy’s piano music. Van Raat’s pedal work creates a sonorous and humid atmosphere that quickly evaporates with each brief but persistent chromatic invasion. Anaitalrax 6 (Ragtime) transforms the carefree syncopations of its early-twentieth century cousin into rhythmic anxiety looming in van Raat’s left hand articulation. Anaitalrax 11 (for Alessandro M.) bursts with poppy, almost disco-like exuberance heightened by van Raat’s metallic treble work. Anaitalrax 17, dedicated to the Brazilian pianist Eliane Rodrigues, is a delightfully graceful habanera to which van Raat’s colors and articulation bring delicate intimacy. Anaitalrax 23 shuffles along like an over-caffeinated Jelly Roll Morton tune, but it is shaped like a Bach invention. Van Raat’s aggressive approach to the keyboard sharpens each subject entry’s claws as he allows the voices to vie for dominance prior to the final, hard-hammered cadence.
Despite Anaitalrax’s many styles and the thirty years over which the etudes were composed, the cycle is remarkably unified. This is certainly attributable in part to van Raat’s performance, which serves to link musical gestures separated by time and music (listen, for example to the subtle changes from the opening of Anaitalrax 4 to that of 16). But, Anaitalrax’s true unifier is Lotichius himself. Tobias Fischer’s equally illuminating and tender “biography in ten parts” that accompanies the two-disc set reveals Lotichius to have been insecure about the public reception of his work. So much so that when the composer finally left Amsterdam for rural Belgium, he attempted to put his “unworthy” scores on the street with the trash only to have them heroically rescued by Hantzen Houwert, the late composer’s widow, who remains the steward of Lotichius’s artistic legacy. The seeds of public insecurity, however, flowered in private composition. The etudes could just as easily be portraits of their recipients rather than gifts to them. The composer-to-listener immediacy Lotichius desired from music for his entire career is readily apparent in Anaitalrax, even if it is paradoxically hidden under layers of shapeshifting composition.
As it would seem with all things Lotichius, this record goes deeper than its two hours of enjoyable listening. Fischer’s biographical essay, notes from van Raat and producer Dirk Fisher, beautiful photography, and commissioned sketch-portraits of Lotichius and van Raat are all prefaced by an affectionate note from Hantzen Houwert. The whole is less a record than it is a tribute to the quiet, lifelong work of an underserved, underperformed, underknown composer who is—deservedly—emerging from obscurity.